Air pollution affects us all in one way or another. Many of us living in teeming metropolises end up facing the prospects of developing a variety of health conditions as a result of our long-term exposure to polluted air. Air pollution can worsen diabetes, it can change the anatomy of our hearts, and it can even … wait for it … make us a bit dimmer.
Seriously. According to a study conducted by Chinese researchers and published in a prominent scientific journal in the US, prolonged exposure to harmful airborne particles can impair the cognitive abilities of people, especially the elderly. We’ve known for a while that air pollution can increase the risks of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in older people. Yet this new study confirms that as people age, their chances of suffering additional harm to their cognitive abilities as a result of air pollution increases.
For their study the team of researchers examined data from a national survey in China of 162 random counties conducted between 2010 and 2014. They then compared the results with official air quality data from the same locations over several years. Their aim was to see how air pollution affected the verbal skills and math test scores of people in areas with especially bad air pollution.
What the researchers found was that air pollution can particularly affect verbal abilities (and math skills, although somewhat less so) and its effects are especially pronounced in men. They theorize that this is because air pollution often affects areas of the brain that are involved in verbal tasks and these areas tend to be less well-developed in men than in women.
“We find that long-term exposure to air pollution impedes cognitive performance in verbal and math tests,” the researchers write. “We provide evidence that the effect of air pollution on verbal tests becomes more pronounced as people age, especially for men and the less educated.”
They add: “The damage on the aging brain by air pollution likely imposes substantial health and economic costs, considering that cognitive functioning is critical for the elderly for both running daily errands and making high-stake decisions.”